Obama and lawmakers seize on Russian offer on Syrian chemical weapons

NBC News

A possible deal to avoid a U.S. military strike on Syria emerged unexpectedly Monday when Russia, seizing on comments by Secretary of State John Kerry, called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to hand over his chemical weapons. [WATCH VIDEO]

The dramatic development added to uncertainty over congressional votes on President Obama’s request for authorization of air strikes against Syria, with Republican and Democratic lawmakers saying Russia’s plan was a way to avoid military action and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) delaying a planned procedural vote in the Senate on Wednesday. 

Obama said the offer is significant and “a potentially positive development.”

He also took credit for the proposal, telling PBS he discussed the idea with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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“This is a continuation of conversations I’ve had with President Putin for some time,” he said. Facing possible defeat in the House and Senate, Obama said his preference had been to find a diplomatic solution but that Russia’s offer should be taken “with a grain of salt.”

“I think what we’re seeing is that a credible threat of a military strike from the United States, supported potentially by a number of other countries around the world has given them pause and makes them consider whether or not they would make this move,” he told NBC in an interview Monday. 

“And if they do, then this could potentially be a significant breakthrough. But we have to be skeptical because this is not how we’ve seen them operate over the last couple a years.”

Russia’s move seemed calculated to avert a U.S. military attack while boosting Moscow’s diplomatic clout and embarrassing the Obama administration.

Syria’s government early Tuesday said it accepted the Russian initiative, to “uproot U.S. aggression.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, eager to stave off hostilities unauthorized by the body’s Security Council, said he might urge the council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons to places within Syria where they could be safely stored and destroyed.

This could create a comparable position in Syria to the one that prevailed in pre-Gulf War Iraq, with U.N. weapons inspectors playing a cat-and-mouse game with Assad.

France will draft the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria's weapons, The Washington Post reported early Tuesday. The proposal would require Assad to give up chemical weapons and address attacks last month in the Damascus suburbs.

Lawmakers eager to avoid a military strike in Syria said the Russian proposal deserved a hearing.

“I urge President Obama to pursue this diplomatic path and move off the march toward a war that the American people do not want, will not enhance our national security and would not resolve anything in the Syrian civil war,” said Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), one of 168 House lawmakers on The Hill’s Whip List who say they will either vote no or are leaning toward voting against Obama’s request.

“If we could make sure it’s verifiable, and there are no slippages and so forth, that may be a solution that works,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the co-author of a narrowly crafted House resolution authorizing military action.

Even Hillary Clinton seemed to endorse the option.

“If the regime immediately surrenders its stockpiles to international control … that would be an important step,” the former secretary of State said in her first public remarks since Obama announced his decision to strike Syria last month. “But this cannot be another delay or obstruction,” she added.

The White House voiced skepticism that Syria would really allow its chemical weapons to be placed under U.N. control, with Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken noting that Syria had insisted it had no chemical weapons as recently as last week.

The Russian proposal came after Kerry said Syria could avoid a military strike by giving up its chemical weapons.

“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week,” Kerry said. “Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”

Kerry couched his apparently off-hand remark as an unlikely hypothetical, but Russia immediately seized on the comments, triggering the unexpected approval from its ally Syria.

“We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons store sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, who was visiting Moscow.

A diplomatic solution could help Obama avoid an embarrassing political defeat in the House and Senate, but would also help Syria, which fears the United States’ military might — as well as any gains the rebels could make as a result of a strong blow — despite its public expressions of defiance.

Russia, Assad’s main weapons supplier, could benefit from the international prestige after coming across as the main obstacle to U.N. action in Syria.

Kerry’s comments have been treated as a gaffe by many in the media, especially after he called the proposed U.S. strike an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort” later in the same press conference, earning him a rebuke by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who called Kerry “unbelievably unhelpful.”

Some, however, argued he may have accidentally helped the president.

“Obama gains from the Russian offer,” tweeted P.J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman under Clinton. “If Assad gives up the weapons, problem solved. If not, it strengthens the case for military action.”

And Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted that the proposal gives the administration a “new argument” to gain approval from Congress: A “threat to strike,” he said, might be the best way to test whether Syria is serious about giving up its chemical weapons.

--This report was originally published on Monday at 8:41 p.m. and last updated on Tuesday at 8:41 a.m.